Tips for Writing a Thriller | NY Book Editors

Equal parts mystery and suspense, anxiety and expectation, the thriller genre is one of the most exciting to read. And, one of the hardest to write.

Do you need help writing an edge-of-the-seat masterpiece? Are you looking to create a page-turner that leaves your reader squealing with anticipation?

Let’s get started. In this post, we’ll discuss how to lay the groundwork for a terrifying and terrific tale.

Choose a Strong Plot

All thrillers have intriguing plots. But let’s take a step back and define what a plot is and what it is not.

The plot is not the same as the story.

Plot is not the same as story. Here's how they're different:

A story is a simple retelling of events. A plot is showing how the events are connected, usually by highlighting the cause and effect. The plot also explains why the story happens.

Here's an example:

A story: The dish and the spoon ran away.

A plot: The dish ran away with the spoon.

As you can see, when looking at the plot, there’s an obvious connection between the actions of the dish and the spoon. There’s also the sense that the dish ran away because of the spoon’s action. I’m not going to get too deep in a nursery rhyme, but you get the point: Stories tell what happened. Plots tell how and why it happened.

If you want a strong thriller, you need to create a plot that shows the connection between events, and how one event causes another.

Plotting, my friend, will take planning. Even if you’re a pantser (i.e. you hate outlining), you’ll need to plan out your plot so that you show how each major element in your story is connected.

Create a Strong Protagonist

Your reader needs to experience your thriller with a relatable (but not necessarily reliable) protagonist. The reader needs to care about the protagonist’s future and understand what drives your protagonist to make certain choices. Give the reader something to root for by revealing the protagonist’s goals and shortcomings.

In some genres, the plot is more important than the protagonist. But in a thriller, both work together to deliver a gripping story. It’s the actions and reactions of the protagonist that not only propel the story forward but make the story compelling for the reader. Because you’ve taken time to add depth to your protagonist, the reader understands what’s at stake for the hero at every turn.

In order for the thriller to be effective, the reader must follow the protagonist as he teeters between risk and reward.

Craft a Believable Villain

Writing a thriller

You can’t have a hero without a villain.

The protagonist is the main character and it’s his story that you’re following. However, you still need a realistic and fully-fleshed out villain to thwart the protagonist.

In fact, in most thrillers, the villain drives the plot. He acts and the protagonist reacts.

For an unsettling example of this, let's look at Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men. Antagonist Anton Chigurh is a heartless hitman who abides by his own moral code. He is a seemingly unstoppable force that’s constantly on the hunt. While he sometimes reacts to the protagonist, it’s usually the other way around.

The antagonist is just as important as the protagonist. This means that you should spend at least as much time defining the villain as you do the protagonist. The push and pull of these two main characters will create a taut thriller.

Choose a Strong Opener

The opening of your novel is no place for backstory. And don’t set the scene with lengthy prologue either.

Jump directly into the action. Shock the reader with something that will grab them by the collar. The goal is to get them to turn the page now, not tomorrow evening.

I recommend dedicating no less than the first three pages to a shocking opening. Start at the immediate moment where the protagonist’s life takes a turn. Use vivid language to describe the scene in real-time (not in a flashback).

After the reader is disheveled and out of sorts, then reel back and make the polite introductions. Ease up on the tension and help them understand how the protagonist must be the person who will solve the dilemma.

Drop Clues Throughout

An effective thriller is littered throughout with hints, clues and foreshadowing. While you should close all open ends by your story’s conclusion, you should never rely on deus ex machina to do so.

What is deus ex machina?

Deus ex machina is Latin for "God from the machine." It comes from the ancient Greek theater where actors often played gods and goddesses. The actors were lowered by a crane (i.e. the machine) onto the stage. The god or goddess would then resolve the conflict and end the story.

While it worked in ancient Greece, in literature, deus ex machina is not a good thing. It's a plot device that allows you to quickly wrap up your story but not in a satisfying manner. If you introduce a character or a story element at the last minute to resolve the plot, you're cheating the reader and damaging your story.

One of the thrills of a good thriller is being able to read it again, this time seeing how everything leads to your satisfying conclusion. A good thriller is filled with breadcrumbs that make a second read even more rewarding than the first.

Create Conflict

Writing a thriller

How do you make both the reader and the protagonist uncomfortable? Conflict!

Insert heaping helpings of conflict throughout your thriller. Conflict should be present both internally and externally and present in every single scene. Throw mines across the protagonist’s path. When they’re alone, give the protagonist an internal struggle. By keeping the protagonist on their toes, you’ll create an uneasy atmosphere that prevents the reader from relaxing.

If you break your plot into three main acts, here’s how to add conflict in three parts:

  • Act 1: Protagonist is thrust into a problem.
  • Act 2: Protagonist identifies and learns about the antagonist; Internally, the protagonist begins to experience self-doubt.
  • Act 3: Protagonist finally confronts antagonist after eliminating other obstacles.

It’s also important to know what’s at stake for everyone in the scene. What are they fighting for, internally and externally?

Add Twists and Turns

No thriller would be complete without a set of twists, turns and misdirection. You’ve got to knock your reader off of his feet periodically or they won’t be thrilled. (See what I did there?).

The best time to introduce plot twists is in act 3 when the reader feels convinced that they know how the story will end. This is the time to kill a beloved character suddenly and without warning (although foreshadowing should be present when re-reading). Give the protagonist hell. Do everything you can to stop a happily ever after. But, of course, close all arcs, straighten all twists and write a satisfactory ending.

Additional Resources

You've made it to the end of this post but not the end of our resources. Here are a few posts that will help you in your quest to write a killer thriller:

  1. How to Raise the Stakes in Your Novel and Create a Gripping Story
  2. Character-Driven Vs. Plot-Driven: Which is Best?
  3. How to Foreshadow Like a Pro
  4. All About Plot Twists
  5. The Importance of Subplots
  6. How to Write a Convincing Villain
  7. Tension! What It Is and How to Develop It in Your Novel
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